In the coming days and weeks, you might be reaching for spices you haven't used in a while. "I'm sure it's still good" you're probably thinking, hoping to avoid an additional high-stress trip to the grocery store. "After all, it's in a sealed jar. What's the worst that can happen?"
Your chili powder doesn't taste as flavorful as it should? It's a little caked and weird when it comes out of the container? No big whoop.
But here's possibility No. 3: Your chili powder is wriggling.
Yes, that's right. If you’re a human being with a kitchen, creepy-crawly bugsare going to try to set up shop in your spice rack. In fact, there's a good chance they already have.
So before you pop open that cumin, let's take a scientific crash course on how and why bugs are in your spices—and how to spot them before seasoning your Thanksgiving dinner.
What kind of bugs are we talking about?
You're probably not going to find a scorpion in your paprika; it's cigarette beetles and drugstore beetles that are the most common culprits found in spices. (These are different from the bugs taking up residence in your flour and other grains; those are flour weevils, and that's a topic for another day.)
These particular bugs thrive in spices and stored foods because they have symbiotic gut organisms that help them break down and gain nutrition from fairly nutrition-lacking foods, says Orkin entomologist Chelle Hartzer.
For instance, cigarette beetles got their name because they were originally found feeding on tobacco, which doesn’t have great nutritional properties, Hartzer explains.
“It’s like termites and wood—they’ve evolved with their symbionts to take advantage of a certain food source,” Hartzer says.
Why do bugs get into kitchen spices?
It sounds like a joke for kindergarteners—because they have the thyme! But in real life, there's no punchline.
The short answer is: because they can, says Jody M. Green, an urban entomologist at the University of Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County.
“Most of the spices consumed in the U.S. have been imported, and it’s not rare for imported products to be contaminated,” Green explains.
Indeed, your spices make a long journey from their raw form to a processing plant to a store warehouse to your particular pantry—so that provides lots of opportunities for little bugs to hop aboard. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has estimated that about 12% of imported spices are contaminated with insect parts or whole insects—12%!
In other words, don’t blame yourself or the cleanliness of your kitchen; if you're dealing with an infestation, chances are good that it happened before it reached your home.
But bugs can easily get in after they cross your threshold, too. Adult beetles can fly, which makes infiltrating your pantry fairly easy. Every open door or unscreened window is an opportunity for them to gain access to your delicious spice collection.
And we hate to tell you, but these creepy-crawlies are formidable, too: Cigarette and drugstore beetles have been known to penetrate thick packaging, including plastic and sheet metal.
Which spices are most likely to contain bugs?
If you like heat in your dishes, we've got bad news. Paprika, cayenne, red pepper flakes, and chili powder are all top hiding places for bugs. The reason? They're all made from peppers, which are richer with nutrients for "multiple generations" of beetles to sustain life, Green says.
Other spices prone to infestation include turmeric, coriander, cumin, fennel and dry ginger, but these types of beetles can also settle in pet food, cereal, and dried fruit.
What do bugs do once they’re inside a spice jar?
Sadly, bugs don't simply crawl into your poultry spice to die a quick and fragrant death.
In reality, as long as the temperature stays about the same, “insects can thrive,” Green says. And breed.
And here's the truly disgusting part: Aside from gorging themselves on whatever spice they've burrowed into, "insects contaminate it with their shed skins and droppings,” Hartzer says.
How can I tell if my spices are infested with bugs?
Solid evidence is visual confirmation of the adult bug or larvae.
“Cigarette and drugstore beetles appear similar with a small, reddish-brown head tucked underneath," Green says. "They're about the size of a sesame seed."
A magnifying glass will help show you a crunchy shell, six legs, and antennae.
If you see what looks like a worm, you’ve found one of the aforementioned beetles—in an immature form. In this pupa stage, these beetles will likely be alive and active.
“Dead worms would probably disintegrate and be incorporated into the spice,” Green says—meaning you may never notice them. This, of course, is both good and bad.
Adult beetles, on the other hand, can be spotted both dead or alive.
“They have hard exoskeletons, so even if they were in pieces, they'd be crunchy or hard,” Green says. Enjoy those holiday dinners, folks!
How can I keep bugs out of my spices?
Remember this catchy instruction: Detect and destruct.
- Check the expiration date. Before you take home a spice from the store, check the "best before" date. Then give the packaging itself a thorough once-over. Spices may have long shelf lives of a couple of years, but rips or tears or dents in packaging may be signs that insects have found a small entryway into the product, Green says.
- Freeze 'em out. Pop your spices into the freezer for at least four days. If you buy your spices in bulk, you can let them live in the freezer and simply rotate out small amounts to live on your spice rack. The freezing temps will wipe out any living bugs, although the dead ones won't be sifted out of your spices, unfortunately.
- Keep your spices in airtight containers. Not only will these prevent insects from gaining entry, but will also preserve the flavor of your spices, Hartzer says.
What happens if I eat insect-infected spices?
“There is not a danger,” Green assures, “but there would be off flavors if they contained enough beetles.” Yep: Off flavors.
If you find insects in your spices, keep the packaging and call the manufacturer.
“Food companies rely on feedback from their customers, and the packaging has important details that can trace back where the product was manufactured,” Green says. “Also keep a picture or sample of the insect in question so that their entomologist or pest professional can identify it and find out where it may have been infested.”